Theory: Mapped Endgames

Many games come to a point where one player is in control, and will win if she can avoid missteps. While such mapped endgames are to some extent scripted, they can still be fun. The keys are to use those last moments as a reward for previous displays of skill, and to keep them short.

“Mapped endgame” is a term that I feel captures the common situation in which a player sees what he needs to do to win, and is completely in control of whether or not he is ultimately successful. The other players cannot stop him; he will only lose if he makes a mistake that lets them back into the game. The situation is “mapped” because the player knows what course to take to reach victory.

It’s important to recognize that in a mapped endgame, the player is still making decisions and those decisions still matter. Falling dominoes are not a mapped endgame. The person setting up the dominoes has relinquished control at that point; much like the final cinematics at the end of a video game, the gameplay (to the extent that setting up dominoes is a game, a definitional issue which needn’t detain us here) is already over. Mapped endgames occur while the game is in progress, and require the player to keep things on course.

While this may smack of autopilot, mapped endgames can be interesting and even exciting. Even if one is clearly going to win a car-racing game, the rush of speed can still be thrilling. A close-fought strategy game can reach a mapped endgame yet still be tense; the player in the dominant position has to make every move precisely correctly while the opponent(s) choose positions from which they can best take advantage of the slightest weakness.

Of course, a mapped endgame done wrong is a painful grind. The winning player acts by rote while the other players suffer through irrelevant decisions. Concessions become likely as everyone starts to agree that the game is “really” over even if there’s technically more to do.

Fortunately, it’s easy to distinguish good mapped endgames from bad ones. The good ones–the ones that will be fun and interesting as players go through the final moves–follow two design rules.

1. A fun mapped endgame is a reward for skilled play. Tichu was the first game where I saw mapped endgames consistently enough to recognize them as a distinct element in a game’s design. Despite happening often, though, Tichu’s mapped endgames aren’t boring. Rather, they’re hard-earned payoffs.

For those who have never played, Tichu is a card game with some similarities to Hearts. Players go around and around the table playing higher-value cards and sets of cards, with the highest winning all the cards played. While certain cards are worth points, the big gains come from predicting at the start of the hand that one will be able to play all of one’s cards first–and then successfully doing it.

Of course, it’s not easy to make those called shots. Doing so requires a strong hand, but even more than that it demands constant attention and the ability to think several moves ahead. Making several strong plays early can leave one’s hand too weak to finish out; failing to track the cards being played can leave one uncertain about whether someone still has the ace that will beat one’s king. Going out first with other players dedicating their entire hands to preventing it is demanding to say the least.

Fortunately, the effort involved is well-rewarded. Putting the available information together to figure out what’s in the opponents’ hands, and then determining the exact right order in which to play one’s cards, creates a feeling like one has had a little taste of enlightenment. The endgame is completely mapped out, but the player drew the map herself, and every step along its indicated path is a vindication of the player’s effort.

Tichu’s mapped endgames, then, are a part of its fun. The player worked hard to reach the top of the mountain, and now gets to stand on the summit. Even if one is just going through the motions, the ease of the final moves marks out as special the difficult work that went before.

2. Mapped endgames should be brief in real-world time. Power Grid is a great game with one flaw: it can involve a mapped endgame that is completely joyless. The problem is not that the endgame is reached too early, or that it can be reached without skill. Rather, the issue is that it just plain takes forever.

In Power Grid every player controls an electric company, with the goal of having the largest network of cities. There are random elements in the game, but for the most part the results of one’s actions are completely predictable. Expanding to city A will cost $B and earn $C; expanding to X will cost $Y and make $Z.

Early on and for most of the game, there’s enough going on to make putting a fine point on those calculations largely unnecessary. Expanding to A might earn $2 more than expanding to X, but another player is heading toward X and it might be worth shutting him out. Then there’s the possibility of expanding to J, which would open the way to an area where no one else is operating. If nuclear energy becomes cost-effective all three of those might easily be within reach, and the question will be whether expanding to cities R, S, and T is worthwhile. Play keeps moving because the players are thinking about these big-picture concerns, and don’t need to spend time optimizing each move.

Unfortunately, that dynamic falls apart on the very last turn. If the last player to move is in a position to win, then that player will have no uncertainties to weigh or long-term plans to take into account. All she will have to do is find the single best move currently available.

That might sound simple, but a great many things factor into that decision: cash on hand, the number of cities one’s company can power, the state of the market, other players’ possible moves, etc. As a result, this last turn can take an enormous amount of time. I played a game of Power Grid in which the last player took half an hour for the last decisions in the last turn–and, given the number of things to consider, was justified in doing so.

Power Grid’s mapped endgame is one turn long, perhaps only one phase of one turn. It is, nevertheless, boring, because it plays out so slowly. Other players just sit and wait while the last player tries every possible combination of actions to make sure she has found the best one.

What’s worse, the time the other players are spending is just time waiting to see if they get clobbered. There’s nothing they can do to change which move is best, or to stop the last player from finding it. They just have to wait to see if she does. And wait. And wait.

It’s worth comparing Power Grid’s mapped endgames to Tichu’s. Once a player knows what to do to win the hand, the process can play out in seconds. Everyone realizes that that player is in control, makes the plays they have to make, and the hand is swiftly over. Play then resumes with a new hand that puts everyone back in the game.

I still play Power Grid, and I enjoy it every time. I’ve met people who won’t and don’t, however, and it’s often because they don’t want to sit through that last turn. Given how frequently I run into people with that viewpoint, I’ve come to feel that it’s important to avoid replicating the misstep in Power Grid’s design, and to make sure mapped endgames play out quickly.

Mapped endgames can be like Tichu’s, a fun interlude. They can also be like Power Grid’s, an unfortunate and off-putting artifact of a game’s design. To keep your game on the right side of that line, stick to the two key rules: make players earn mapped endgames, and keep them short.

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